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Using Mindfulness to Reduce Math Anxiety in Preservice Elementary School Teachers
In the US workplace, the increasing demand for STEM graduates to fill key positions has many implications. Economists and others project that the United States will need one million STEM workers by 2022 (PCAST 2012). According to the US Department of Labor (2007), our education system is simply not producing students interested in—or with the skills required by—STEM fields. This deficit may lead US employers to look outside the country for much of the STEM workforce (Hickey 2013).
Figure 1 presents a scenario that, although originally created with a mind toward increasing diversity in STEM, illustrates the need to start addressing disinterest and poor learning opportunities as early as kindergarten. These factors often lead to anxiety that can follow a student for life, affecting the decision to go to college, the ability to enroll in and matriculate through college, and the college path they pursue. This is particularly alarming in the case of elementary education graduates who are required to teach all subjects, including math. Their math anxiety is easily transmitted to elementary school children, thus continuing the cycle as depicted in figure 2.
Mathematics anxiety is “a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of math problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations” (Passolunghi et al. 2016). Anxiety can reduce the working memory needed for a person to retain knowledge and access it during exams (Eysenck et al. 2007; Passolunghi et al. 2016). The literature states that anxiety has a negative effect on various aspects of the learning process such as attention, memory and processing speed. Math anxiety is often caused by less than opportune experiences in math classes that lead to repeated poor mathematical performances and, ultimately, avoidance (Marshall 2015).
All too often, students with this background choose elementary education as their college major, erroneously thinking that they will only teach minimal, low-level math. However, teachers with math phobias or anxieties, those who don’t feel good about their math skills, tend to minimize math instruction or in other ways unconsciously make students believe that it is ok that everyone can’t “do” math (Barack 2018). The result contributes to students arriving at college with insufficient preparation in math or other STEM fields, and therefore disinterested in or unable to pursue STEM as a major.
A straightforward way to improve students’ STEM learning is to improve their teachers’ STEM knowledge and interest. In this study, mindfulness was used as a tool with a cohort of preservice elementary teachers to reduce their anxiety and to facilitate their learning of mathematics.
One way to describe mindfulness is as simply being aware of what is occurring in the moment, compassionately and in a nonjudgmental way (see fig. 3). Kabat-Zinn (1990, 11), considered to be the father of mindfulness in the United States, asserts the following:
We routinely and unknowingly waste enormous amounts of energy in reacting automatically and unconsciously to the outside world and to our own inner experiences. Cultivating mindfulness means learning to tap and focus our own wasted energies. In doing so, we learn to calm down enough to enter and dwell in states of deep relaxation. This nourishes and restores body and mind. At the same time, it makes it easier for us to see with clarity the way we actually live and therefore how to make changes to enhance our health and the quality of our life.
This study required preservice teachers (hereafter called students) to create new habits. I chose to adopt the widespread thought that it takes thirty days to create a new habit, a time period that is long enough to actually see a change and short enough to enable a person to push through and make a determined effort to change. The study was designed for thirty days near the end of the semester. On day one, students were invited to participate in a study designed to reduce math anxiety. The students were in the first two of my sequence of three mathematics courses for education majors. There were twenty students in the first class and eighteen in the second class. The ranks of the students in the study vary from first-year students to seniors, so their graduation dates are in the future. All students were female; the racial composition was thirty-six African Americans, one Caucasian, and one African (n=34; four students chose not to participate in the study). One student was enrolled in both classes.
Prior to the discussion of mindfulness, students signed consent forms to participate in the month-long study. Students then completed presurveys, the Abbreviated Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale (A-MARS), and the Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ). A-MARS presents twenty-five statements to which students indicate their level of math-related anxiety. The twenty-five statements reflect test anxiety (fifteen statements), anxiety related to manipulating numbers (five statements), and anxiety related to taking math courses (five statements). The thirty-nine-item FFMQ is a measure of mindfulness commonly used before and after mindfulness-based interventions to assess change. The five facets of mindfulness measured are observing—noticing or attending to feelings, thoughts, and sensations in the present moment (eight statements); describing—using words to label experiences (eight statements); acting with awareness—fully engaging in the current activity, rather than just automatically performing without being mindful of what you are doing (eight statements); nonjudging of inner experiences—acceptance of what you are thinking or feeling without criticism of your thoughts and emotions (eight statements); and nonreactivity to inner experience—noticing thoughts and feelings without showing a reaction toward them (seven statements).
I introduced mindfulness to my students using a multimedia approach. The introduction included information on the origins of mindfulness and the recent growing interest in using related techniques in the United States. I discussed the variety of major US entities that employ mindfulness, such as the Army, major companies, P−16 schools, and a growing number of minority-led institutions. A few students already had prior knowledge of mindfulness. One student remembered her high school dance instructor using mindfulness before and after practice, another student discussed an app on her Apple Watch, and two other students worked in schools that employed mindfulness. These students all shared their thoughts on the benefits of mindfulness.
Using a YouTube video, the students then experienced a three-minute mindfulness breathing exercise. The video was followed by a class discussion about their feelings before, during, and after. Students were introduced to various mindfulness apps available to them on any mobile device or desktop computer. It was important that students had access to this tool whenever and wherever they felt a need, as this might facilitate continued use.
For this study, I created journal folders for each student. I included mindfulness data and tips located on various internet sites, providing the URLs. I encouraged the students to jot down thoughts after each activity and not attempt to write full-page entries. The students were assured that their journals were anonymous and would not be collected.
Students were assigned to repeat the mindfulness breathing exercise that evening before they started their math homework, to journal about the experience, to review several apps, and to choose one to use during the study period. Students discussed their experiences at the end of the following class period. Once a week for the following four weeks, we discussed mindfulness experiences and effects on anxiety. Students also turned in anonymous written assignments related to their experiences. At the close of the study period, students completed post-surveys (anxiety and mindfulness) and participated in an audio-recorded class discussion of their experiences and thoughts.
Throughout the study period, participants reported on their use of mindfulness and its effect on their anxiety levels and overall well-being. Kabat-Zinn (1990) explains that mindfulness helps us see clearly enough to make changes that improve the quality of our lives. Initially, most students reported doing mindfulness activities frequently and feeling somewhat better about their ability to do math. Some used the activities just before doing homework and studying for assessments at home. Others reported starting off their day doing the activities and feeling better overall during the day. Still others practiced breathing exercises while en route to school or to prepare for difficulties they knew they would face upon arriving at work. Only a few students reported using the journals even at the beginning of the study. After two weeks, students reported obstacles to being consistent with mindfulness exercises and especially journaling about them. By the final discussion on the last day, the consensus was that although they were well aware of and appreciative of the benefits of mindfulness, they were unable to incorporate it into their lives. Students who even promoted mindfulness among fellow students or coworkers were unable to be consistent in their own pursuit of mindfulness. Even if they were able to practice, the journaling was often forgotten, and students spoke of not always having the journal folder with them.
Only thirteen of twenty students in the first course and fourteen of the eighteen students in the second course returned completed post mindfulness surveys. The following results reflect only the twenty-seven students with complete pre and post mindfulness surveys. Each of these students was enrolled in only one of the courses; the student who was in both classes did not return completed surveys.
The pre- and post-AMARS surveys reflected slight decreases in anxiety levels for most students, several students showed no overall change, and a few students showed slight increases in anxiety. Slightly more than half of the students in the first course showed decreases in test and course anxiety levels (seven and eight students, respectively). Five students in this course reported a decrease in their operational anxiety levels. One student in the course reported high anxiety levels in each of the three categories both before and after practicing mindfulness. This student struggled throughout the course to earn a C. In the second course, all but two students reported an overall decrease in anxiety levels. One of the two students reported no overall change and the second reported an increase of two points. I mention these two students because both students earned great grades throughout the semester and neither reported high anxiety levels in any category.
The pre and post mindfulness surveys reveal that more than half of the students in the first course reported an increase in mindfulness levels of seven to twelve points in four of the five categories—observation, description, awareness, and nonreactivity. On the other hand, at least half of the students in the second course reported a decrease in mindfulness levels in each of the five categories.
It seems that students who have only been in my class one semester reported the most positive mindfulness change. These students were also taking their first mathematics course in their major and perhaps were more inclined to try something new. Students who had been with me for two semesters reported the least improvements in anxiety and mindfulness levels. These phenomena deserve closer examination.
Mindfulness is a conscious act of being aware of the present, accepting past mistakes without labeling them or oneself as bad, learning from them, and moving on with life. It has been shown to reduce anxiety levels in students, thus enabling them to become more successful in academic pursuits as well as in other aspects of life (McCloskey 2015). Mindfulness has the potential to help fix the leaky STEM pipeline by enhancing preservice teachers’ learning and their subsequent teaching of mathematics and mindfulness to elementary students, which can lead to broader STEM abilities and deeper interest and participation in STEM throughout students’ P−16 education. Particularly important, it has the potential to greatly increase STEM participation by underrepresented minorities.
In addition to implementing mindfulness in my classroom activities, I began introducing the concept across campus. In my research on mindfulness activities occurring in my city, I came across scheduled events that I shared with professors in various departments. The information was well received, and some professors from other disciplines attended events. Additionally, I held mindfulness-based stress reduction student workshops for three days during the week before midterms. The workshops all took place in the building where I teach. On the first day, a student counselor in attendance shared his knowledge and experience of introducing mindfulness to students.
Next, I invited the student counselor to take part in introducing mindfulness study to my students. On the first day of the study, he joined both classes to share his knowledge and experience. Later he and I held additional mindfulness workshops to help students study for final exams. This time, to facilitate attendance by more students, we varied the days, times, and locations. He led one of the sessions in his building on Tuesdays, and I led two sessions in two other buildings on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Therefore, the workshops ran for three weeks in three different buildings on campus. We also disseminated information on the mindfulness activities we had been involved in during the campus technology conference.
As I make changes to the study for another semester, I will incorporate electronic journaling apps, increased in-class mindfulness activities such as brief breathing exercises before quizzes, other brief mindfulness exercises before learning new topics, simple tools to gauge states of mindfulness before and after the exercises, and virtual mindfulness-related conversations beyond the classroom by using the campus learning management system (Blackboard). I believe that these changes will help students see the power in mindfulness and realize that they can make positive changes in their lives.
Barack, Lauren. 2018. “When Teachers Have a Fear of Math, Their Pupils Can Absorb the Wrong Lesson.” Education Dive, March 7, 2018. www.educationdive.com/news/when-teachers-have-a-fear-of-math-their-pupils-can-absorb-the-wrong-lesson/518391/.
Eysenck, Michael W., Nazanin Derakshan, Rita Santos, and Manuel Calvo. 2007. “Anxiety and Cognitive Performance: Attentional Control Theory.” Emotion 7 (2): 336–353.
Hickey, Walt. 2013. “Americans Won’t Like Hearing the Real Reason that Silicon Valley Is Pushing So Hard for Immigration Reform.” Business Insider, June 1, 2013. www.businessinsider.com/the-real-truth-about-the-stem-shortage-that-americans-dont-want-to-hear-2013-5.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. 1990. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. New York: Random House.
Marshall, J. 2015. Managing Anxiety with Mindfulness for Dummies. Cornwall, UK: TJ International.
McCloskey, Laura E. 2015. “Mindfulness as an Intervention for Improving Academic Success among Students with Executive Functioning Disorders.” Social and Behavioral Sciences 174: 221−226.
Passolunghi, Maria, Sarah Caviola, Ruggero De Agostini, Chiara Perin, and Irene Mammarella. 2016. “Mathematics Anxiety, Working Memory, and Mathematics Performance in Secondary-School Children.” Frontiers in Psychology 7: 42.
PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.) 2012. Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduate with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/sites/default/files/microsites/ostp/pcast-engage-to-excel-final_2-25-12.pdf.
United States Department of Labor. 2007. The STEM Workforce Challenge: The Role of the Public Workforce System in a National Solution for a Competitive Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Workforce. Washington, DC: United States Department of Labor.
Wanda McCoy, Assistant Professor of Math and Computer Science, Coppin State University